There’s a strange resemblance between religious conversion stories and weight-loss ads: both rely on astutely edited “before” and “after” images.
To sell slimming products, the camera first shows a man facing forward, flaunting his flabby gut and lumpy love handles. In the “after” shots, the camera is angled to the side, highlighting a newly narrowed midriff.
The goal of the illusion isn’t to just make the man look better, of course; it’s to make viewers believe that a product has the miraculous power to turn blubber into brawn.
As anyone who has spent time in a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, sangha, AA meeting or prison knows, a similar effect can arise in religious conversion stories. The “before” pictures, in particular, tend to darken. The snares of sin sharpen, the descent into depravity deepens.
Often enough, eye-roll-worthy embellishments are accepted, even expected. What’s a little stretch when you’re winning souls for Christ, or escaping bad karma? But sometimes converts’ zeal can get the better of them.
The questionable content of conversion stories came under scrutiny last week with reports about Ben Carson, the GOP presidential candidate who credits God with his remarkable rise from poverty to renown.
To some extent, Carson’s campaign, as well as his longstanding popularity among conservative Christians, is built upon the stories he tells about himself and his relationship with God, including the narrative of his dramatic conversion from a violent young man to spiritual tranquility.
As a teen growing up in Detroit, Carson says, he reacted angrily to perceived slights, trying to bash his mother with a hammer after an argument about pants and attempting to stab a close friend — an unnamed relative, he now says — over a radio.
If those incidents seem to contradict Carson’s sedate public persona, that’s the point. Only God could change a man that much, he says, telling the story of how, after trying to knife his relative, he prayed in a bathroom for three hours, asking the Almighty to tame his raging temper.
“When I came out of that bathroom I was a different person,” Carson says. “I had really had an experience with the Lord.”
In a story published last Thursday, though, childhood friends told CNN they don’t recall any of the vicious fights Carson has detailed. Neither do such stories jibe with their recollection of him as a bookish, quiet kid, his friends said.
Carson retorted that CNN had “talked to the wrong people” and said the person he almost stabbed does not want to talk to the media, which he accused of conducting a “witch hunt.”
“The burden of proof is not going to be on me to corroborate everything I have ever talked about in my life,” Carson told journalists.
Whether or not every detail can be corroborated, Carson’s conversion story has long plucked a powerful chord among evangelicals, said Ted Olsen, managing editor of the magazine Christianity Today.
It follows a script familiar to many born-again Christians, Olsen said: “I had an issue in my life. I was going down the wrong path. I turned to God and surrendered my bad behavior, and (God) took it from me.”